Pre-Spawn Northern Pike - Late Ice or Open Water?

By Gilbert Arndt - February 1, 2002
It was an unseasonably warm March day, in an unseasonably warm spring,a few years ago.The ice had just cleared off of the east end of Puckaway Lake,a day or so before,but there still was a large ice mass on what we call the "Big Lake" area on the west end. With air temps in the 50s at midday, and water temps generally in the high 30s to low 40s,I had a whim to try and see if I could locate some active pre-spawn Pike before water temps rose too far, and the Northerns began spawning! Because of the mood of fish at this time of year, and the clarity of the shallow water, I opted to anchor, and fish dead bait, rather than casting, and moving. After about a half-hour of watching that big bobber, and enjoying the beautiful weather, things started to happen fast! My large "basketball bobber" suddenly dissappeared in the shallow water, and line was peeling off my casting reel at a "thumb burning " pace! After letting the big "gator" run for the required time, I reared back on the stiff "Musky Rod" and set the hook with authority, only to find this did little to slow the large fish! Now I was excited!!! Just how big a "toothy critter" had I latched on to?

This experience happened a few years ago, but with our "warm" winter this year, I thought this article appropiate, as pre-spawn for Northern Pike could occur either under late ice, or in open water this season. Typically, as days start to warm and ice thins, ole Esox, starts to think about spawning, and the fish move into shallow marshy areas. In these staging areas big female Pike rest and ready themselves for the upcoming spawn. Depending on the weather that season, this can happen under the ice, or in recently open water. During this pre-spawn females are spooky, and while feeding for the upcoming ritual, they are conserving energy, and are looking for an easy meal. With runoff bringing in food, as well as shad die off, Pike are naturally feeding on dead bait at this time of year. You can probably coax smaller male Northerns to strike lures at this time, usually more in frustration, than feeding, but large females are feeding on dead bait!

Dead Bait? Alot of you new to fishing for ole Esox,are wondering what does he mean by "dead bait"? The most common dead baits used are smelt, or ciscoes, because of the oily nature of this fish. The oil trails off from the bait leaving a "scent trail" for the fish to follow. I prefer to use a more natural bait, large suckers! I purchase live suckers at the bait shop, and after I place them on the hook, I slit the bellies, so the entrails trail out into the water.But what about the oily scent trail you say? Before I cast out my doctored offering, I spray on a oily form of fish attractant,prefferably an Anise connoction. After you see a few drops of this on the water, you will see what I mean about "oily scent trail". Not only do I have the "scent trail", but I have a more natural bait,suckers. As the sucker struggles before dying, it also gives off the "wounded bait" vibrations, so attractive to Pike at this time of year! Now we must talk about the most important part of this setup, "QUICK STRIKE RIGS"!!! There are various forms of these on the market, but it is ESPECIALLY IMPORTANT, at this time of the season to release the spawning females, back into the water, unharmed if possible, and allowing fish to swallow bait, before hooking,is going to result in dead fish! There are many effective ones on the market, the Flagel Rig is popular in this area for ice fishing, and various forms of Muskie Rigs are good also. I personally use a large needle to thread a steel leader from the back of the sucker through the mouth, placing a hook in the mouth, and behind the dorsal fin of the sucker. This allows the bait to hang more lifelike, and puts the leader inside the bait, also causing the sucker to be more natural! With a Northerns natural tendency to grab a bait sideways and run with it before stopping to swallow it, you must set the hook as soon as it is running strong.This, plus the quick-strike rig,should result in a fish hooked in the mouth, hopefully to be released alive,unharmed!!!

So whether we have ice or open water this March, if you are fishing on a lake like Puckaway, that has open season year round, you can enjoy pre-spawn Northern Pike action! Look for shallow, marshy bays, or intakes, with black,mud bottoms, preferrably on the North sides, as these warm soonest on a lake. Fish quietly,as if you are hunting,and use dead bait, and you possibly could get that big Gator of a lifetime!!! Please practice CPR during this period(Catch,Photo,Release)

Getting back to the fish that was taking my line with ease; It was truly an exciting battle,with the water being so clear and weedless,this time of year,I could easily see the large "Gator", as I tried to get her to the boat as quickly as possible.Seeing she was "lightly" hooked in the corner of the mouth, I took a quick measurement at boatside, and released her unharmed in a spray of erupting,"cold" water! Around 39 inches,not a bad Pike! About a month and a half later, in April,on a day we caught 5 "Gators" over 32 inches, in a Post-Spawn pattern, I caught a 39 1/2 inch spawned out female! Could it have been the same one? I will never know for sure, but that trip is another story!

Until next time Good Luck in the Great Outdoors!!!

Author Gilbert Arndt

Gilbert Arndt
Besides being Field Editor for Lake Puckaway on Lake-Link.com, Gil Arndton the Primos Pro-Staff, a freelance outdoor writer, videographer and hunting and fishing guide, with almost 20 years experience hunting bears. Gil owns and operates Lone Wolf Guide Service & Outdoor Videography which offers bear hunts, turkey hunts, waterfowl hunts, fishing on Lake Puckaway, as well as videotaping hunts, fishing ,or promotions for outdoor products or businesses. You can contact Gil at (920)394-3138, or email at lonewolf@dotnet.com.